Clayton Eshleman photo courtesy of the Eshleman family BOO & THE CULTURE Flashlights in the Gloom BY PAUL CHRISTENSEN Makes You Stop and Think: Sonnets by Daniel Hoffman George Braziller 55 pages, $14.95 Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems by W.D. Snodgrass BOA Editions Ltd. 251 pages, $2795 An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire by Clayton Eshleman Black Widow Press 109 pages, $15.95 Here are three writers from another generation, overlapping one another by a few years, messengers from a world shaped by two pivotal events in American lifethe Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II. Each has lived through the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, and now the Iraq war, and weathered most of the catastrophes, victories, and defeats of a long period of decline of American civilization. Daniel Hoffman is the group’s senior member, born in 1923 into Prohibition and the Roaring 20s, the Jazz Age, and the flowering not only of modernism and the Harlem renaissance, but the overwhelming sense that American art and literature had become the major forces in Western expression. You can feel it in his sonnets, which are jaunty and muscular, not at all studied or bound by the sort of formalities British poets were still observing well into the 1960s. W.D. Snodgrass is the middle member, born in 1926. His outlook and passions were shaped by his combat experience in World War II. His images often refer to Hitler, the Holocaust, the turmoil of a conflict that oozed across two continents and was punctuated by the dropping of two atomic bombs. Snodgrass is often credited with launching confessional poetry in 1959 with his first book, Heart’s Needle, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry that year and cleared the way for a much darker mode of selfexamination that reached its climax in the work of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. War embittered this poet and drew him toward the dark side of human nature, in which power always seems to wear a Nazi uniform and memories of totalitarianism and death camps feed the sense of evil in which he deals. Clayton Eshleman was born in 1935, in the heart of the Great Depression, the same year Elvis was born. His language is more shrill and panicky, and his imagery wriggles beyond the control of his logic. It is as if the events that marked his youthgovernment witch hunts in the ’50s, the Korean conflict, the slaughter in Vietnam, and the unraveling of the presidency under Richard Nixonconspired to create a feeling of impending madness. His poetry sprang from a desire to heal oneself through a mode of self-probing briefly referred to as “Deep Image,” a Jungian method of catching hold of fleeting images buried in the psyche and fleshing them out in a jumble of plots from daily life that seemed to cohere around a sense of terror and unpredictability. These are men with a long memory, to whom history is not so trivial as a few heroes and some dates picked up from a cursory high school education. They share a common dread of what America has become in the last 60 years, and are just old enough to recall 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 12, 2007
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